Why Chinese Authorities Aren’t Worried About Burma

By Echo Hui 17 December 2012

Following recent protests against some of China’s major business ventures in Burma, media polls suggest Chinese people are concerned about a strain in relations with their southern neighbor, but their leaders don’t seem bothered.

In Burma, the pullback on a Chinese-backed dam project and demonstrations against the Chinese-operated Letpadaung copper mine have caught the attention of Chinese netizens. Last week, an online poll by China’s state mouthpiece Global Times newspaper found that nearly 55 percent of respondents believed China and Burma were heading in separate directions, while another 35 percent said the state of relations seemed unclear.

But despite widespread worries among Chinese Internet users, the government and state-run media remain positive about strong ties between the two countries.

After Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was chosen to lead a probe of the Letpadaung copper mine in northwest Burma, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported the story, saying Suu Kyi was a “positive, objective and rational” leader for the investigation.

The copper mine is a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and China’s Wan Bao Company, a subsidiary of arms manufacturer China North Industries Corp. (Norinco). The project has been a source of controversy for months, especially after Burmese police brutally cracked down on monks protesting peacefully against it, injuring nearly 100 people.

Suu Kyi has pledged to find a solution that considers the long-term interests of Burma and its people, but an analysis by The Associated Press suggested the opposition leader was becoming more pragmatic while picking her battles.

The Chinese mouthpiece Global Times said that while democracy brought new hope, the halting of major construction projects in Burma would be more of a curse than a blessing to Southeast Asia’s poorest country.

“If the copper mining project in Letpadaung turns into another Myitsone Dam project, the Myanmar [Burmese] government should be responsible,” the newspaper wrote, referring to a Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam whose construction in north Burma was suspended last year by reformist President Thein Sein in the face of public opposition to the project.

Yang Baoyun, the deputy director of Peking University’s Asia-Pacific Research Institute, told The Irrawaddy that China’s relationship with Burma had economic and strategic value.

“It’s still too soon to judge what kind of impact the copper mine protest will have on the traditional relationship between the two countries,” he said, adding that he believed Burma’s foreign policy toward China would not fundamentally change.

Earlier this month, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng also brought Burma into the spotlight when he criticized his government’s human rights record and urged Chinese leadership to learn from Burma’s recent political and social reform.

Chinese netizens have engaged in fierce debates over recent protests against Chinese companies operating in Burma.

“We cannot rigidly follow foreign policy from the 1950s and ignore how much Myanmar has changed over this year,” wrote Web user Hehan Hongmeng, commenting on a Global Times article. “It’s time to move forward.”

Some netizens have criticized China’s longstanding alliance with its southern neighbor, saying the Chinese government was asking for trouble by working with Burma’s former military junta, whose rule formally ended last year when Thein Sein came to power.

But China’s state-run media discounted such criticism, calling it “strange nonsense in a diversified society.” Global Times said that continuing ties with a more liberal Burma was also in accordance with China’s long-term interests.

“Burma was going to open up sooner or later,” the newspaper said. “Burmese people have a right to develop their country.”

As Burma’s biggest neighbor to the north, China has little reason to worry about its influence, the newspaper said.

“Even a 12-year-old knows about the irreplaceable relationship between the two countries,” and Suu Kyi “is smarter than that,” it said.

Although the newspaper acknowledged that “American factors” were becoming a bigger influence, especially following US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Rangoon late last month, it said China’s trade ties with Burma gave it an overwhelming advantage.

“Obama brought $170 million in aid to Burma, but unless he brings the same amount of money to Myanmar every month, he can’t change the importance of Sino-Myanmar relations,” the newspaper wrote.

Still, China may be shifting its policy somewhat in Burma, observers have said.

“Chinese policy toward Burma has been changing over the years,” Li Kaisheng, a professor of international politics at China’s Xiangtan University, told The Irrawaddy.

“China is now willing to communicate with famous opposition leaders, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “China is now more neutral in facing its more liberal neighbor.”